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Reframing accountability to remove fear 

“We just need people to be more accountable” is a phrase I often hear from the leaders I work with.  

The problem is, when leaders say this, what their people hear is “You’re not doing enough”, or “You’re letting me down”. And this is because accountability is often what gets discussed when things are going wrong, rather than as a means of setting things up for success. It’s this punitive view of accountability that holds leaders, teams and organisations back from boosting progress and keeps them stuck in a cycle of under performance. Because what this punitive perspective of accountability triggers, is fear. 

What’s driving accountability? 

Fear. Which is primal and powerful. When triggered, fear activates processes and reactions in our brains and bodies that have powerful consequences for the way we think, feel and behave. And that’s why leaders need to understand the neuroscience and psychology of accountability, and how they influence us when we’re asking for or being asked to take personal ownership and collective responsibility. Understanding how fear impacts accountability can help us move away from experiences of avoidance and underperformance, filled with frustration and drama, and towards ones of ownership and personal responsibility, filled with clarity, confidence and learning that fast-tracks progress, performance, and success. 

The central issue here is that, too often, we hold people to account from a place of power and control. Much like we might hold up a bank or a corner store: we storm in, waving our accountability processes and systems around like weapons, looking to scare everyone into submission. Accountability is weaponised and used as a form of punishment, as we pay for our missteps and mistakes after they have been made and often when there is little opportunity to do anything about it. 

The dynamics of accountability 

When we hold people to account, it’s based on a dominator power dynamic and the energy of fear. From this place, the best we can hope to achieve is compliance. And that compliance comes at the cost of our people retreating into smaller and smaller spaces where they can feel safe – settling for underperformance for fear of risking failure. And let’s face it, this is about as far from the courageous creativity and inspiring innovation we need to meet the challenges and leverage the opportunities in the uncertain and complex environments in which we operate. 

But what if we could reset accountability and do it differently? 

What if, rather than holding people to account, we called them there? 

What if, rather than being used as an after-the-event punishment for missteps and mistakes, accountability set us up for success right from the start? 

What if, rather than being driven by fear, accountability became an act of love? 

What if, in asking our people to be accountable, we were telling them, ‘I see the greatness in you; you can play a bigger game. And I’m here to support you to do just that.’ 

I know. It sounds like a stretch, doesn’t it? 

But if we’re going to be better at accountability – and we need to be – this is where we need to go.  

Shifting the dynamics 

Here are three questions you can ask right now to start moving towards calling people to account in your team: 

  1. Get real.  
    Ask: Are the expectations you have of others realistic? 
     
  2. Get clear.  
    Ask: Did you make the expectations clear and explicit? 
     
  3. Get curious.  
    Ask: What factors in the context are impacting accountability? 

The reality is we’re not wired for accountability. In fact, quite the opposite. We’re wired for ‘avoidability’. To address the epidemic of under performance that’s being driven by fear-based issues with accountability, we need to move from holding people to calling them there. And in our COVID-impacted work context where the pressure to perform is clear and present, the real question is, can you afford not to? 

Dr Paige Williams, author of Own It! Honouring and Amplifying Accountability is a researcher, PhD in Organisational Behavior and trusted advisor to senior leaders. She uses a potent blend of neuroscience, psychology and her own twenty-plus years of international business leadership experience to help leaders surface uncomfortable truths, see the rules they need to break in order to break through and lead themselves, their teams, and their organisations to thrive.